Act: Inspiration

Winter Reflections: Engaging our Children

February 13, 2023

I am a farmer. It is a profession I chose – I wasn’t born into it. It is my passion. After raising crops and kids, I went back to school in science, partially out of curiosity, but mainly to learn what I didn’t know. What I learned, after 5 years of school, is that I still didn’t know much. I wasn’t looking to teach but I fell into teaching because my thesis advisor was going on sabbatical and asked me to take over his undergraduate classes. I was seduced by the idea – but I was totally lost: a farmer/botanist in a marine biology department teaching the winter semester course in environmental science. 8:30 AM Monday and Wednesday. No one wanted to teach in that time slot. Not in mid-winter. And nobody wanted to take a course at that time. But the class filled, as it was a required course for international studies majors. And so, early Monday morning, the students shuffled into class, wanting to be back in bed, not ready for the world of cold classrooms, too-bright lights, and hard chairs.

Students are always sick at this time of the year. It is a given. The holidays can be stressful, as are the winter exams and the weather. The kids slumped over in their seats, coughed and sneezed, cleared their throats, blew their noses. They looked miserable. Many had been up too late the night before studying. Some, I am sure, had slept in their clothes. I spent that semester in the combative role of devil’s advocate to provoke a discussion, any discussion.

One winter morning, just after class began, it started to snow. I can’t remember what my lecture was about, but I can remember the snow. It was a heavy-blinding-magnificent-terrifying snowstorm which appeared out of nowhere. My classroom was on the second floor of an old stone building overlooking a busy Washington D.C. Street. It was rush hour. But in the whiteout, the cars had disappeared. And the stoplights. And the apartment buildings across Massachusetts Avenue. The large branches of the old pine trees which hugged the sides of the second floor windows were weighted down with snow. I can’t remember the names of any of the students in that class, but the beauty of the pines decorated with snow… that I remember with absolute clarity. It was Mother Nature on steroids. And it was breathtaking.

I couldn’t stay on track with the lecture. I gave in to the moment and on a brand-new-teacher-knowing-absolutely-nothing impulse, I turned off the too-bright overhead lights and asked the students to just sit quietly and observe the power of nature, of the climate system. And at that moment, the idea seemed brilliant. I wanted these kids, living smack dab in the middle of a busy city in high rise dormitories, to see the natural world as I see it: awe-inspiring, something of value, but increasingly extreme and chaotic. All that was left of the natural world outside the window was pine trees and snow. I said nothing for a minute or two imagining the inevitable lively discussion, perhaps someone even mentioning our impact on the climate system.

But there was only an increase in throat clearing and coughing.

Undaunted, I said “lets just observe what is happening for another minute.” Someone clomped in late and asked “what are we doing?” Someone else replied “I don’t know.” I tried again and said, “observation is where science begins.” On hindsight, something fairly uninspiring and without direction. But at that moment, I would settle for them to just see the immense power of the snowstorm. Anything. A few more minutes passed. More coughing. Then I saw that look in their eyes. Every lecturer knows that look, the one when you have lost your audience and they either no longer know what you are talking about or no longer care. No one in my 8:30 AM class had the energy or the tools to rewire their way-too-early Monday morning brain. Some of the students were looking at their phones. A few had begun to whisper with one another. I wanted them to be engaged in what was happening around them. I wanted to convert them all to born again ecologists.

That didn’t happen.

I turned on the classroom lights and said “everyone is tired.” I wanted to keep my job and I told myself that they had a departmental exam to pass. So I stuck with the syllabus and went back to my lecture on some far away climate event, all of us ignoring what was happening in our immediate world. Such a metaphor on where we are still stuck today. Those kids in that classroom are in their mid-thirties now. Perhaps now they are looking out the window, but I fear they are looking at their cell phones.

I did not reach them.

I thought about what went wrong. It wasn’t enough to just observe, the students had to become engaged in the work. Where I failed with that class was in my inability to connect my students with the snowstorm. I wanted them to see the increasing chaos in our climate system. I would have been content with them simply feeling overwhelmed by the beauty and the fury. But I couldn’t get my point across. This is the critical message for our times as we confront and experience the results of our actions on the climate. How do we communicate our sense of urgency to others. In this classroom setting, I was the one (theoretically) in charge and, though I heard all their signalling that I was missing the mark, I was overlooking meeting them where they were. And that is what I see happening every day now as most people find ways to ignore not only the science, but what is happening in real time, in real life around them.

Postscript #1: I’m an inveterate talker. It has been a long a slow process to learn to show more, talk less. After that semester, I applied for all the special dispensations and insurance liability waivers to get my students out of the classroom. I divided the class into groups of six, each group responsible for studying and reporting on a project which would continue through the entire semester. I began with waste, dragging them to the kitchens of the school cafeteria to see the food prepared and then the dumpsters out back. We went to the sewage treatment plant for the city to see the end product of the food, garbage, and sewage. We went to the pumping station for a talk about monitoring the water supply. We saw the chemicals used to treat the water coming into our pipes, water from the same river in which the liquid waste from the sewage treatment plant was being dumped, though a bit downstream. Some of the students were sparked by what they saw but some just wanted to know “will this be on the exam?” At the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant a number of students refused to get off the bus because of the odor. One young man, a good student, informed me that “when I flush the toilet, I don’t want to know where it goes.”

Again, I did not reach them. It wasn’t enough to observe and have a front row seat at issues I felt were important. The students had to care about what they were studying. It had to be relevant to their lives.

Postscript #2: In my last semester teaching that course, I was awarded a small grant from the university. $600. With that money I finally met the students where they were, and where the course material could begin to make an impact. We all went out to eat at McDonalds. The assignment was to order items on the menu and divide into groups based on their one favourite item. The first class, in the restaurant, was just to describe what they ate, what it tasted like, how they felt after eating it and how they felt one hour later. Each table was filled with talking and laughing. Back in classroom, for the remainder of that semester, each group studied the ecosystem degradation/destruction and carbon footprint in their favorite fast food. Everyone was engaged, some were enraged. The talking and laughing continued. Jokes were made. Disgust was shared. A bit of outrage was heard. With the rest of the grant money they had posters made at a nearby printer and lined the biology hallway with a seductive photo of each food and a list of where it was grown; the energy expenditure in processing, packaging, storing, shipping, reheating; what chemicals were used (in growing, processing, for taste); what forested land was cut down… I made no judgments. In fact, I hardly spoke. I had nothing to do with the printing of the posters or what was written on them. I simply helped with where to go for the necessary research resources. At the end of the semester each group made a presentation of their findings. The talks were thorough, enlightened, original and passionate. They all got it. Or, perhaps, I finally got it.

I passed everyone in the class.

Perhaps some of them are now ecologists.

 “A Big Mac leads to the emission of 2.35kg of CO2. This is the same as driving an average UK petrol car 7.88 miles… The Double Big Mac emits as much CO2 as a 14.95 mile journey.”


Teaser photo credit: Author supplied.

Zia Gallina

In a previous lifetime, Zia Gallina worked as a botanist for the National Parks Service, on the C&O Canal outside of Washington D.C. (lecturing on wild indigenous and naturalized medicinal and culinary plants). She was also an adjunct professor teaching biology and environmental science at American University, Washington D.C. But she has always been, first and foremost, a farmer and a champion of small-scale biointensive farming, tagging behind Mother Nature, trying to stay as close as she can get.

Tags: Education, environmental education, environmental messaging